Ken Bruce leaves BBC Radio 2: what it was like to work with Scottish DJ on PopMaster - and why he’ll be missed

As Ken Bruce heads over to Greatest Hits Radio, National World’s Henry Sandercock shares his memories of working with the legendary radio presenter on PopMaster

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The UK’s most listened-to radio programme came to an end on Friday morning (3 March), when Ken Bruce signed off from his BBC Radio 2 mid-morning show.

Having played The Beatles’ medley track ‘Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End’, the 72-year-old used one of its lines to say goodbye to his listeners. He said: "And in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make - and I have loved being here with you.”

With an average audience of 8.2 million listeners per week according to the most recent RAJAR figures, the Scottish DJ’s show was loved for its wit, bonhomie and features, including Tracks of my Years and, of course, PopMaster. Bruce will now ply his trade at Bauer Media station Greatest Hits Radio.

His departure severs the last of Radio 2’s links to the Terry Wogan era, which were arguably its most successful. With the network’s controller Helen Thomas targeting a younger demographic, ex-Radio 1 DJs like Scott Mills and Sara Cox, as well as celebrities including Rylan Clark-Neal and Michelle Visage, have been favoured over long-time favourites, such as Steve Wright, Simon Mayo and Paul O’Grady.

I was working at Radio 2 as a fresh-faced freelancer when this regeneration of Radio 2 began. For three years between 2016 and 2019, I worked across its output as a researcher and a producer. Much of my time was spent on both Ken Bruce and the Jeremy Vine Show.

‘Always up for a chat and a joke’

Soon after I started my brief radio career by accident in 2016, I came across the phrase: ‘Presenters get the glory, producers get the blame.’

It perfectly captured two different aspects of being a producer, or anyone involved in radio production. First, your job is to be the person in the shadows who weaves together the scripts and sounds a DJ can add their silky tones to. Second, radio presenters can be complete arseholes.

Ken Bruce wore the massive responsibility of his BBC Radio 2 show lightly (image: Getty Images) Ken Bruce wore the massive responsibility of his BBC Radio 2 show lightly (image: Getty Images)
Ken Bruce wore the massive responsibility of his BBC Radio 2 show lightly (image: Getty Images)

Fortunately, most DJs I came across were actually quite nice, and Ken Bruce was certainly one of the best people I got the chance to work with. He was always up for a chat or a joke, and wore the significant pressure of delivering a seamless show lightly. In other words, his on-air personality definitely tallies with the human being.

I remember chatting to him when then-US President Donald Trump visited the UK in July 2018. We’d both been woken up in the night by the sound of his noisy aircraft flying between London and Blenheim Palace, and Ken joked that he’d considered firing a bazooka at the low flypast. I can still see him in my mind’s eye pretending to hoist a rocket launcher over his shoulder and imitating firing it (before the security services get in touch, he was definitely joking).

While he was generally a cheery chappy, he also took his job very seriously. He always arrived at Wogan House well before his show to prepare himself - a professionalism that isn’t shown by everyone in his industry.

You would often find him sitting in his studio reading through the day’s papers. At 11.30am when Jeremy Vine came in to trail his show, Ken would often prove to have more knowledge on Vine’s news items than Vine himself.

Ultimately, what his listeners will miss is his mastery of wit - something modern day radio doesn’t usually allow any time for. Ken could pick us up at any moment with his wordplay - a vital public service when the news was bad, particularly during Covid-19 - as well as distract us with classic tracks and the gripping fun of PopMaster.

The ‘weird and wonderful’ world of PopMaster

I worked as one of two people who screened wannabe PopMaster contestants. While this role exposed me to only a small fraction of the work put in day-in day-out by the show’s producer and assistant-producer, there was certainly a great deal of pressure to find people who would do the hallowed quiz justice.

But I actually found it to be good fun. After asking each prospective contestant a few musical quiz questions, I’d then get to ask them about their lives.

One of the key questions was always: ‘Do you have a claim to fame?’ which threw up some weird and wonderful answers. I’ve listed some of the more memorable ones here:

  • “I crashed my car on the same day as I’d won a road safety competition"

  • "I ran over Alison Moyet during a driving lesson"

  • "I was choosing salad items in a supermarket. I chucked a lettuce across to my trolley, narrowly missing Ainsley Harriott’s face"

  • "David Jason rescued me from a hot car in Dubai when I was a kid. I had chickenpox, so my parents didn’t want to take me into a golf club"

  • “I was walking through Heathrow wearing a Rolling Stones t-shirt. Ronnie Wood walked past me and said: ‘nice band’. I was so shocked, I could only call him ‘Keith’"

  • "I was involved in a gas explosion on the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. I was on a newspaper front page with the Queen, but the paper wrongly said I was having a Jubilee tea when the accident happened. I’m an anarchist and wasn’t celebrating, so I complained. They did a correction"

While chatting with these people, we were told not to give information about ourselves away. It was mostly for our own protection, not that any of the potential contestants would do anything bad.

But on one occasion, I spoke to a person who lived in Powys and let slip that my granny (who’s sadly no longer with us) also lived in a small village there. It turned out he lived a few doors down from her with his young family.

While you never truly know who you are speaking to, he turned out to be a lovely guy and met her a few times before he moved away. I think it gave her a bit of comfort knowing someone else who lived close-by, but it also reduced the distance between me in London and her in Wales.

It was a great testament to the power of radio, which binds us all together whether we listen for only a few minutes or a few hours a week. And Ken Bruce’s Radio 2 show was one of the most powerful vehicles for binding us together in what has become a fragmented world.

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